News about potential Russian military recruits fleeing the country for safer, more peaceful climes is hardly rare at the moment. One such story, though, has already found a happy ending – as Hvaldimir, a beluga whale named for Russian President Vladimir Putin, is now hoping to live out his retirement in a 500-acre aquatic sanctuary in the Norwegian fjords.
“Everybody has fallen in love with this whale from YouTube viral videos,” Adam Thorpe, a former property mogul who was so moved by Hvaldimir’s story that he decided to get involved with the charity OneWhale, told The Guardian. This group, originally founded by Norway-based filmmaker Regina Crosby, now funds the protection and monitoring of the ex-pat cetacean, who first turned up in 2019 wearing a harness that labeled him “equipment of St Petersburg” – leading some to suspect the cheeky beluga of being an escapee Russian military asset.
“I read about him in National Geographic in 2019, and found it concerning. He has clearly been domesticated and has a wonderful personality. I thought, well, if we could create a sanctuary or a reserve, which protects the whale from boat traffic, it means that he can fish for himself and live as natural a life as possible.”
So the group did just that. After seeking the advice of American activist Ric O'Barry, a former dolphin trainer who has spent decades campaigning against keeping dolphins and whales in captivity, the group decided to swim Hvaldimir into one of the many disused fjords that run through the north European country.
Their hope, Crosby told the BBC last year, was to create “an enormous, open-water marine wildlife reserve” in a fjord at least two kilometers (1.2 miles) long and one kilometer (0.6 miles) wide, with accommodation and facilities for staff to monitor the renegade beluga.
A few towns expressed interest in housing the adorable Russian defector. However, it's rumored Hammerfest – the epically named town where Hvaldimir first set fin – could soon be home to the world’s first open-water whale sanctuary and its resident ex-spy, although it has not been approved yet by local government or Vist Hammerfest.
If all goes well, Hvaldimir may not be alone in his new paradise: “By telling the story of this whale we can also offer a reserve to other formerly captive whales,” Thorpe said. “There are no salmon farms on the reserve and there are no boats coming in and out, eliminating the risk of propeller injuries.”
The idea isn’t without controversy. Keeping an animal in a closed-off fjord would “not [be] a Norwegian thing to do,” Jørgen Ree Wiig, from the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries, told the BBC. That said, Norway’s recent track record with wild animals includes highlights such as killing Freya the Walrus back in August and a few hundred whales last year alone – so the confirmation that Hvaldimir might soon be getting a dedicated fjord of his own is welcome news for many.
Correction 11/10/22: This article was amended to include that both local government and Vist Hammerfest have not approved the sanctuary yet.